Some of the best known of Nebraska’s earliest citizens were also the most nefarious and despicable. One such lady was Omahan Anna Wilson, who would happily loan her employees money, pay for their weddings and even extended free medical coverage to them at a time when such largesse was unheard of.
Thus, Anna was often referred to as the “soiled dove with a heart of gold” while others called her the “Queen of the Underworld” at the same time.
Although it is fairly certain that Anna was born in 1835 in Georgia it is probable her first name was Helena. It has also been stated, although with little evidence to back it up, that her father, whose name may well not have been Wilson, was a Baptist minister. Some reports go on to say that she was then raised by an unnamed uncle. By her own account, Anna met Dan Allen from Watertown, New York, who, among his varied occupations, owned a steamboat and was a professional gambler. When Dan moved to Omaha, Anna followed.
In 1866-67 Omaha was a wild, open town where virtually anything went on and although Dan’s first occupation was listed as a horse broker, he quickly turned to gambling. The U. S. census of 1870 showed he lived with three young women whose occupation was shown as “shirtmakers.” Within a few years Dan’s faro parlor was in the Pioneer Block but when that building burned, the business moved around the corner to the east side of 12th Street where he located above a pawn shop. The gambling room was connected to the shop below by a dumbwaiter so that gamblers could refresh their cash without leaving the premises. Anna “worked” for Allen and had about a dozen young ladies in turn working for her.
Anna had a well-known passion for champagne and diamonds. Thanksgiving of 1875 had Anna and Dan attending a ball at Harry Clayton’s Crystal Saloon at which Anna became so inebriated that she was sent home in a hack virtually unconscious. The next morning she reported $10,000 worth of her diamonds had been stolen the previous night. Dan was certain that Clayton had been the culprit and threatened him with exposure if the diamonds were not returned.
Dan was then directed to a cottage in Council Bluffs where the jewels were found on a bed, but District Attorney W. J. Connell prosecuted Clayton anyway with Clayton ending up in the state penitentiary.
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In 1871 Helena Washburn began, at the age of 17, working for Anna who immediately changed the name Helena to Josie as being more professional. In 1895 Josie moved to Lincoln where she operated her own brothel until her retirement in 1907 when she wrote the expose "The Underground Sewer."
There were 17 houses of “questionable character” in Omaha in 1880, one of which was Anna Wilson’s who lived with Dan Allen. Dan, who was noted as an “honest man” by his customers, died in 1884 and was buried in a plot at Prospect Hill Cemetery, which had been purchased by Anna, who still operated the brothel but also began investing in Omaha real estate. Anna also then constructed her “ladies boarding house,” described as being of red brick, three stories plus sunlight basement, with double bay windows on the first and second floors with a “richly carved foyer.”
Omaha attorney Alfred Jones built his 2 ½-story, brick and limestone, nine-room mansion in Kountze Place at 2018 Wirt Street in North Omaha. In 1906 Anna bought the house for her residence after closing the Douglas Street brothel.
Anna then offered the brothel building to the city of Omaha for use as a hospital and though the city felt its former occupation forbade their acceptance, they did agree to rent it from her for $125 a month beginning in about 1910. The city replaced the anatomically correct stone pillars featuring naked women, with plain columns creating a 25-room, 46-bed emergency hospital for “cases of contagious diseases.”
Six months after the proposed gift became a hospital, on October 27, 1911, Anna Wilson died at the age of 76 and was buried next to Dan Allen in Prospect Hill Cemetery under a marble slab and nearly a foot of concrete to protect her from what she saw as possible vandals. Thanks to shrewd investing by W. J. Connell and A. L. Reed, her properties had doubled in value between her death and their disbursement so that her will left between $250,000 and $1 million to the city as the “second largest charitable give ever given in Omaha” benefiting the City Mission, Child Saving Institute and the Creche Children’s Home.
Almost from the first anniversary of her death a yellow rose was left on Anna Wilson’s grave, sometimes by the Thomas Kimball family, sometimes anonymously. The Douglas Street brothel/hospital was razed in the 1940s and the Wirt Street mansion torn down in the 1970s with only her gravesite and name on the 2013 Wilson & Washburn Saloon/café at 1407 Harney as reminders of her life and philanthropy.